Sentimental Journey: Remembering REMEMBER WENN

These days, AMC is synonymous with some of the most popular original programming around. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead. For those of us who knew AMC back when it was still American Movie Classics, we’ve watched the network’s rise and fall and rise and fall and rise with an initial swell of shock, shock, horror, horror … then surprise … then reconciliation … and now a genuine buried-hatchet admiration.

And yet even in the old AMC days of Bob Dorian and Film Preservation Festivals, there were glimmers of the network’s future as an original programming stalwart. In fact, it was during the years of AMC’s pre-TCM dominance in classic film that it first branched out into the original programming arena. AMC’s debut original series was a refreshingly original and unabashedly nostalgic bit of programming that consistently hit the “ahhhh, that’s nice” spot.

Do you Remember WENN?

The show was a complete anomaly from day one. Premiering in 1996, the same year that American TV sets were faithfully tuned in to ER, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond and Law & Order (the latter of which people still do), a show like Remember WENN was an oddity. Writer Rupert Holmes had crafted a period dramedy set at a Pittsburgh radio station during WWII with no modern considerations: No laugh track. No big names. No established audience.

The show is a sentimental journey through the trials, triumphs, tribulations and all manner of tomfoolery behind-the-scenes at a radio station during the Golden Age of Radio.  For any out there who remember cuddling up next to the wireless and listening to the latest episodes of “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, “The Lone Ranger”, a Lux Radio Theatre Production, etc., (and for those of us too young to have experienced it, but are fascinated by its history) Remember WENN is is a visual treat. (Accent on the visual: Remember WENN‘s solid costume design earned the series its one and only Emmy.)

The show’s premise benefited from a formula that mirrored the structure of the films of the era it depicted. No matter how impossible or overtly sentimental the story lines, it was grounded by a truly believable, utterly charming band of quirky characters and their quick-fire repartee which, of course, meant some seriously smart writing. It also meant a stable of adroit helmers–the most intriguing of which, in this writer’s opinion, was Joanna Kerns. (Yes, Kerns is much more than Mrs. Seaver.)

The show-runners gave us Mr. Foley, a convincingly Keatonesque sound guy; the sweet-faced writer Betty Roberts (think of her as a Peggy Olson 1.0) ; the cuddly-wuddly Mackie Bloom, Mr. “man of a thousand voices”; the handsome, silky-voiced Jeff Singer, WENN’s romantic leading man; and several more darling characters that –as stereotypical as it was– were nevertheless thoroughly irresistible. But more importantly, the show’s hijinks were always balanced by the gravity of the era– for all the witty frivolity, sobering subplots involved air raids, rationing, and war injuries.

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Surprise guest stars were also a constant on the show, with the likes of Jason Alexander, Eddie Bracken, Molly Ringwald, John Ratzenberger, Roddy McDowall, and, yes, Mickey Rooney, among others.

Remember WENN‘s executive producer, David Metzler, had this to say in a 1997 interview: “When we first sold AMC on the idea, we promised them something that would be completely consistent with their programming, that would have the feel and look of a ’40s movie. The aim was to create a show where viewers couldn’t immediately tell, either through the writing or visual style, whether this was new programming or a classic films.”

The show was a big gamble for AMC, but the station’s faithful viewers–and we were reverently faithful during that period–tuned in loyally each week. In those days, the Internet was a relatively new and somewhat exclusive phenomena, hardly the global village it is today, and therefore AMC did not benefit from the close-knit community that its modern day counterpart, Turner Classic Movies, enjoys today. We were there, we simply had no means of connectivity. Perhaps if Remember WENN had been borne under more liberal architecture, its lifespan would have lasted a bit longer.

“Originally,” said Metzler, “we were going to end the show before Peal Harbor. Then we were going to end with Pearl Harbor. … Frankly I could see us doing this show during the early days of television.”

It was not to be. One year after Metzler’s interview, the show was canceled at the end of it’s fourth season– not coincidentally in 1998, the same year that AMC came under new management … and things were never quite the same again.

A number of Remember WENN episodes are currently available for viewing on YouTube. Watch the pilot episode below.

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